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A Specter Is Haunting Xi’s China: ‘Mr. Democracy’

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
Pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989. China’s Communist authorities are wary about the approaching thirtieth anniversary on June 4

Beijing—Something strange is happening in Xi Jinping’s China. This is supposed to be the perfect dictatorship, the most sustained period of authoritarianism since the Cultural Revolution ended more than forty years ago, a period of such damning disappointment that all but the regime’s most acquiescent apologists have become cynics or critics. And yet the past few months have also seen something potentially more interesting: the most serious critique of the system in more than a decade, led by people inside China who are choosing to speak out now, during the most sensitive season of the most sensitive year in decades.

The movement started quietly enough, with several brilliant essays written by a Chinese academic that drew an attack from his university bosses, which in turn stirred a backlash among Chinese public intellectuals. None of this means that the Communist Party is getting ready to loosen its icy grip over the country, but it is a remarkable series of events that is challenging what was supposed to be possible in Xi’s China.

Although the party never ruled over a golden age of free speech in China, it was possible to argue that for a decade up until the late 2000s China was getting freer. The combination of economic reforms and proliferating new media appeared to be permitting citizens more personal autonomy and freedom of expression. That began to change slowly soon after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics. First came the detention of Liu Xiaobo for helping to organize “Charter 08,” a document calling for modest constitutional reforms—a stand later recognized by the award of a Nobel Peace Prize. Then the overthrow of autocracies during the Arab Spring in 2011 fed into party neuroses about secret plots and uprisings, and this last decade has seen the end of meaningful public debate of almost any kind. 

Enter Xu Zhangrun. A fifty-six-year-old professor of constitutional law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xu is well known in Beijing as a moderate and prolific critic of the government’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism. Since 2012, he has published and spoken widely about his concern over China’s course. Some of his essays are mentioned in “China’s Moment,” translated by David Ownby, a University of Montreal history professor who, with several other scholars, started an invaluable website called “Reading the China Dream,” which makes available leading Chinese thinkers in English. Others are translated by the scholar Geremie Barmé and collected on this page of the China Heritage website.

While most of Xu’s earlier writing was couched in fairly dense language, he decided last July to make his message much more explicit. Writing for the website of the now-shuttered Unirule Institute of Economics, Xu issued what amounts to a petition to the emperor in the classical style. He bluntly explained that the government’s ever-tightening grip was leading the country to disaster, and he demanded measures to reverse course. 

Xu’s original article last year, called “Our Immediate Hopes and Expectations,” was republished by The Initium, an independent Chinese-language website based in Hong Kong. That already helped to make it one of the most widely read recent articles critiquing the government; then it was translated as “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” by Barmé, who added an invaluable preface explaining the long tradition of petitions or memorials to the throne. 

Xu writes that ever since the Cultural Revolution, China’s rise has been based on four basic principles: an end to political campaigns; permitting private property and wealth accumulation; tolerance for some personal freedoms; political term limits to prevent the return of dictators like Mao. All of these, he implies, have been breached by Xi; the violation of the fourth principle enables Xi to serve beyond the end of his two five-year terms in 2022.

Xu then sets out eight expectations—in effect, demands of the government—that include the abolition of special privileges for Communist Party cadres, the disclosure of leaders’ personal assets, the end of what he sees as a personality cult around Xi, and a return of term limits. Most incendiary of all, he calls for the overturning of the official verdict on the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre, which was that the use of deadly force was justified because the protests were a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

To get a measure of Xu’s bluntness, here is how he describes (in Barmé’s translation) the privileges enjoyed by party members, including health care:

On one side of the hospital Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows that grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. The people observe this with mute and heartfelt bitterness. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury.

Also worrying for Xu is the state of Sino–US relations, which he sees as threatened by leaders on both sides of the Pacific. In the US, he says “a crowd of the Ghoulish Undead, nurtured on the politics of the Great Game and the Cold War” is pushing mercantilist politics that are “shortsighted and avaricious.” China, meanwhile, is run by Xi, referred to simply as “the One”:

The One is blind to the Grand Way of current affairs and is scarred indelibly by a political brand from the Cultural Revolution. Overweening pride and official competence leads this One to bend his efforts to serve the wrong ends; talented enough to play the bureaucratic game, and doubtlessly masterful at achieving high office, but as for Guiding the Nation along the Correct Path, [what the One does] is worse than arrant time-wasting for there is something perverse at work.

Xu followed this up with several other articles warning about silence and complicity, as well as an extensive three-part critique of the party since reforms began in 1978. Although all of Xu’s articles were immediately censored, Xu himself initially escaped official criticism—until this year, when in March he was suspended from teaching and placed under investigation.

That led to a series of courageous essays from Chinese public thinkers. One leading voice was Guo Yuhua, a colleague of Professor Xu’s at Tsinghua who has herself been sidelined by the university while her critique of the government has been censored and suppressed. (See the NYR Daily’s 2018 Q&A with her here.) Guo wrote that the university was destroying its reputation by attacking Xu. 

Other scholars or prominent voices who joined in include the independent writer Zhang Yihe, the film critic and publisher Geng Xiaonan, the translator and scholar Zi Zhongyun, the law professor Xia Li’an, and the Peking University economics professor Zhang Weiying (who revised a folk ballad to support Xu; it can be heard here). Many others have followed, including some writing sarcastically of the need to get rid of all professors, and some using classical poetry to voice their support. In addition, Chinese and foreign scholars launched a petition to support Xu, which can be viewed, and signed, here.

All the more surprising is that these public statements are happening at an exceptionally delicate time. As always in China, the reason is history. This June 4 will be the thirtieth anniversary of Tiananmen, which will be preceded exactly a month earlier by the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, itself a turning point in modern Chinese history when Chinese took to the streets demanding “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy”—in other words, a modern economy and military in tandem with a modern political system. As many commentators are bound to point out in the coming weeks, the country is in the process of obtaining the former while stifling all efforts to create the latter. Finally, this October 1 will be the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The collision of all these momentous historical precedents means that it takes inordinate courage for critical public intellectuals to speak out now. 

The government is, of course, adept at marginalizing such voices. Inside China, accessing these articles by Xu, Guo, and others requires a VPN, software that enables a user to bypass China’s censored intranet and access the global Internet. As a result, Xu and his supporters are unknown to the vast majority of Chinese people. 

That makes it hard for public intellectuals to effect change. But they perform another, important function: reflecting the Zeitgeist of an era. Even though Xi is personally popular among many in Chinese society, my impression in traveling widely through different parts of China and observing different strata of society is that people are also conscious of a sense of loss—that the dynamism of the 1990s and 2000s has been turned into something more rigid and stagnant. Even China’s vaunted economic development, which for decades masked all sorts of popular discontent, is slowing, and the government lacks any impetus for reform that would create new motors of growth.

Xu’s case is therefore about far more than another dissident’s being silenced or a few lonely voices speaking out in protest. Instead, it captures a sense that the government has overplayed its hand on many fronts and that opposition is building.

All of this might well be impossible to sustain. But over the past century, even during the darkest times, the underlying humanism of Chinese culture has never been extinguished and has even, at critical moments, reasserted itself. This might seem too romantically hopeful, but it reminds me of a saying from traditional Chinese thought: wu ji bi fan. When things reach an extreme, they must move in the opposite direction. We can only hope that this pendulum is now at its farthest extent, and that we are witnessing a slow but steady swing in the opposite direction. 


An earlier version of this essay contained misspellings of the names of Zhang Yihe and Zi Zhongyun; it also misstated the number of parts to Xu Zhangrun’s critique of the party—in its English translation, it is five, but in the original Chinese, it was three. The article has been updated.